MESA, Arizona — This game certainly didn’t have the impact that the last baseball game I attended in person did (Game 5 of the 2016 World Series), but it was certainly nice to get out on a beautiful, 72-degree day Arizona afternoon and see live baseball. (I’m not 100 percent certain, but I believe this was the first professional baseball game played in the United States since the Cubs won the World Series.)
The Nippon Ham Fighters of NPB and KT Wiz of KBO both spent the last week or so training in Arizona, hosted by the Mariners at Peoria Stadium. This exhibition game, won by the Fighters 9-1 (and I am going to have to mightily resist the temptation to write “Ham Fighters” throughout the rest of this article), didn’t mean much to me, or any of you, for the result. But it’s important to me as the first live baseball game I’ve seen in 2017. The price was right, too: free.
Unfortunately, the one Fighters player everyone wants to see — Shohei Otani — didn’t play in this game and wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Otani injured his ankle during the Japan Series last year and not only did he not play in this game, he won’t play in the World Baseball Classic either.
The first thing I noticed that was different from your standard MLB game was when the managers brought out the lineup cards. They bowed to one another, politely. There were no national anthems and the game began promptly at 12:30, in front of maybe 200 people. Some of them were just local baseball fans like me, but I saw one large group of Japanese tourists wearing Fighters garb, obviously following them halfway across the world for spring camp.
Another difference: Both teams did fielding drills right before the game started. You almost never see this anymore in MLB, though this sort of thing was done by MLB teams as recently as the 1970s.
The result shouldn’t have surprised anyone. The Fighters are the defending Japan Series champions and KT Wiz was the worst team in KBO in 2016. And as befits a spring-training game, no pitcher went beyond two innings, and the Fighters took out all their starting players after the fifth inning.
Nevertheless, it was obvious that the Fighters are a tight unit and well-trained. Photo 11 shows Fighters catcher Yushi Shimizu laying down a perfect sacrifice bunt. He showed bunt even before the pitcher went into the set position, meaning they could set up their defense. Even so, the bunt was perfectly executed. The runner he was advancing started on first base, but even after he was wild-pitched to second, Shimizu bunted anyway. The runner eventually scored as part of a four-run fifth inning. The Wiz pitcher, Keunyoung Woon, got hit hard.
And that name brings me to another point. Korea has a paucity of surnames — the names Lee, Kim and Park supposedly constitute almost half of the population of Korea. This shows clearly in the KT Wiz roster — there are 14 players named Kim, six named Lee and four named Park. Thus on the scoreboard (photo 10) they are identified by what we would consider their given name. In other words, the starting KT Wiz pitcher, Sanghwa Lee, was shown as “Sanghwa” on the board. Former Cubs infielder Hee Seop Choi would have been identified as “Heeseop” using this format. It was a bit confusing at first, especially since the KT Wiz uniforms had only Korean characters on them, but eventually it made sense.
There were only three strikeouts in the entire game, all by Fighters pitchers. This is likely partly due to the superiority of the Fighters team to the Wiz, but also that’s the way NPB hitters are trained, to put the ball in play. They did draw four walks, mostly attributable to Wiz pitchers’ wildness. Wiz pitchers also threw two wild pitches and their catcher had a passed ball.
The Fighters have three former MLB players on their roster, but none of them played in this game. I did see one of them, Brandon Laird, walk by on his way to the dugout. Laird, an infielder, played briefly for the Yankees and Astros from 2011-13 and has been a big power hitter for the last two years for the Fighters. In 286 games in NPB he’s hit .248/.311/.502 with 73 home runs, and he was Japan Series MVP last year.
The Wiz have a few former MLB players, too, and it’s a bit eerie to see Andy Marte listed on that roster. Marte played for KT Wiz the last two years and was expected back in 2017.
The Cubs had one concession stand open selling basics (hot dogs, soda, beer, pretzels, peanuts) at reasonable prices. I also wandered into the Sloan Park gift shop, which has been doubled in size over the winter. In addition to tons of spring-training garb, there’s quite a bit of World Series memorabilia and things to wear. I suspect that will sell fast once the spring season begins.
The final bit of difference between this and a normal game, announced over the PA during the eighth inning, is that they played the bottom of the ninth even though the Fighters (the “home” team) were well ahead after the top of the ninth. This is likely because both teams wanted to get pitchers and hitters extra work in a meaningless game.
Meaningless, perhaps, to any standings or championships, but not meaningless to me. It was great to get out in the sunshine and see live baseball in person again, just 17 days before the Cubs will take the field at Sloan Park in front of a lot more people than were there Wednesday afternoon.
Here’s one full at-bat from the game, their third baseman Hyun (who doesn’t appear to be on the roster linked above) fouling off a few pitches before flying to right. It’s great to hear the sounds of the game.
Finally, here’s my scorecard (link opens .pdf) so you can check out the play-by-play and final boxscore of the game.
H/T to John Arguello of Cubs Den for the headline!